The phrase "evil empire" was first applied to the Soviet Union in 1983 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who took an aggressive, hard-line stance that favored matching and exceeding the Soviet Union's strategic and global military capabilities, in calling for a rollback strategy that would, in his words, "write the final pages of the history of the Soviet Union". The characterization demeaned the Soviet Union, angering Soviet leaders and energizing conservatives in the United States and Europe.
According to G. Thomas Goodnight, the "Evil Empire" speech along with the "Zero Option" and "Star Wars" speeches represented the rhetorical side of the United States' escalation of the Cold War. In the former, Reagan depicted nuclear warfare as an extension of the "age old struggle between good and evil", while arguing that an increased nuclear inventory as well as progress in science and technology were necessary to prevent global conflict. Through these speeches, the Reagan administration used rhetoric to reshape public knowledge about and attitudes toward nuclear warfare.
British House of Commons speech
Reagan's chief speechwriter at the time, Anthony R. Dolan, reportedly coined the phrase for Reagan's use. Some sources refer to the June 1982 speech before the British House of Commons as the "Evil Empire" speech, but while Reagan referred twice to totalitarianism in his London speech, the exact phrase "evil empire" did not feature in any speech until later in his presidency. Rather, the phrase "ash heap of history" appeared in this speech, used by Reagan to predict what he saw as the inevitable failure and collapse of global communism. This latter phrase was originally coined by Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky in November 1917, who used it against the Mensheviks.
Reagan's first recorded use
Yes, let us pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness—pray they will discover the joy of knowing God. But until they do, let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the State, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world .... So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride—the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.
In the "evil empire" speech, which also dealt with domestic issues, Reagan made the case for deploying NATO nuclear-armed missiles in Western Europe as a response to the Soviets installing new nuclear-armed missiles in Eastern Europe. Eventually, the NATO missiles were set up and used as bargaining chips in arms talks with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who took office two years and three days after Reagan's speech, on 11 March 1985. In 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to go further than a nuclear freeze. In an Atomic Age first, they agreed to reduce nuclear arsenals. Intermediate- and shorter-range nuclear missiles were eliminated.
Global reaction and aftermath
The Soviet Union, for its part, alleged that the United States was an imperialist superpower seeking to dominate the entire world, and that the Soviet Union was fighting against it in the name of humanity. In Moscow, the Soviet press agency TASS said the "evil empire" words demonstrated that the Reagan administration "can think only in terms of confrontation and bellicose, lunatic anti-communism".
During his second term in office, in May–June 1988, more than five years after using the term "evil empire", Reagan visited the new reformist General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, in Moscow. When asked by a reporter whether he still thought the Soviet Union was an "evil empire", Reagan responded that he no longer did, and that when he used the term it was "another time, another era".
Historians such as Yale University's John Lewis Gaddis have grown more favorable towards the use and influence of the phrase "evil empire" in describing the Soviet Union. In The Cold War Gaddis argues that, in their use of the phrase "evil empire", Reagan and his anti-Communist political allies were effective in breaking the détente tradition, thus laying the groundwork for the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union.
The term has also been alluded to in reference to the United States itself. Pat Buchanan argued that Russia's President Vladimir Putin implied that the US under the Obama administration deserved the title in the 21st century, and furthermore argued that Putin had a good case for doing so because of American views on abortion and same-sex marriage, pornography, promiscuity and the general panoply of Hollywood values. Buchanan served as White House Communications Director for Reagan from 1985 to 1987.
- Goodnight, G. Thomas (November 1, 1986). "Ronald Reagan's Re-formulation of the Rhetoric of War: Analysis of the "Zero Option", "Evil Empire", and "Star Wars" Addresses". Quarterly Journal of Speech. 72 (4): 390. doi:10.1080/00335638609383784.
- "'The Battle of the Evil Empire', by Frank Warner, The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa., March 5, 2000". Frankwarner.typepad.com. December 4, 2003. Retrieved March 8, 2013.
- "Modern History Sourcebook, Ronald Reagan: Evil Empire Speech, June 8, 1982". Fordham.edu. Retrieved March 8, 2013.
- Salisbury, Harrison E. (June 30, 1985). "A Reagan Antecedent in Revolution". letter to the editor, New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved September 19, 2007.
- "Ronald Reagan, Address to the National Association of Evangelicals ("Evil Empire Speech")". Voices of Democracy: The U.S. Oratory Project. University of Maryland, College Park. March 8, 1983. Retrieved April 19, 2015.
- "President Reagan's Speech Before the National Association of Evangelicals". The Reagan Information Page. March 8, 1983. Retrieved July 28, 2014.
- Johns, Michael. "Seventy Years of Evil". Policy Review. Retrieved October 26, 2015.
- "President Ronald Reagan". Britannica.com. June 12, 1987. Retrieved March 8, 2013.
- Meisler, Stanley (June 1, 1988). "Reagan Recants 'Evil Empire' Description". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved December 23, 2016.
- John Lewis Gaddis (2006). The Cold War: A New History. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0143038276.
- Pat Buchanan (December 17, 2013). "Is Putin One of Us?". Townhall.com. Retrieved July 28, 2014.
- G. Thomas Goodnight, "Ronald Reagan's re‐formulation of the rhetoric of war: Analysis of the 'zero option,' 'evil empire,' and 'star wars' addresses." Quarterly Journal of Speech 72.4 (1986): 390–414.
- Robert C. Rowland and John M. Jones, "Reagan's Strategy for the Cold War and the Evil Empire Address". Rhetoric & Public Affairs 19.3 (2016): 427–463.
- Video of Ronald Reagan's Evil Empire speech
- Audio of Ronald Reagan's Evil Empire speech
- Text of Ronald Reagan's Evil Empire speech
- Text of Ronald Reagan's Evil Empire speech (British House of Commons speech)